Sunday, September 4, 2011


A whole lot is put into the scoring of wines. Some of the more reputable wine magazines hire people full time to travel to different wineries and taste their wines. but what does a score really mean? What does a best value wine really correspond to? It is mind boggling that a publication will score hundreds of the same varietal, but name a wine that is not the highest scoring and cheapest their 'best value wine.' It seems to me that there must be something else at play.

I am not here to speculate on why, but I am pretty opinionated when it comes to scoring. My attitude? I could care less (until we score a 98, then who knows :)). To me, scoring builds on the enigma and aristocratic cloak surrounding wine. Wine should not be intimidating, it should be something shared and expressed. At the core of winemaking is the desire to make the best wine possible and have the wine enjoyed, and the drinker should never forget that. They should follow their own tastes and smells and let that be the guide to what they enjoy, not the opinions of a few people who may have other vested interests in the industry.

And take it from me, I was very intimidated the first time I stepped in a winery. I was so worried about looking foolish that I was afraid to speak my mind. I will never forget the first time I was invited to taste with winemakers at the end of our day. Instead of talking with the winemakers and comparing what I was perceiving and thinking, I wrote everything down in a journal. Even though I had been working in cellars for a few years at that point, and a few years with those winemakers, I was still nervous about getting laughed out of the room. Or worse, to deflate their confidence in me as a budding winemaker. But wouldn't you know it, everything I wrote down jived with what they were thinking. It slowly began to dawn on me that they were just as interested in my opinions as I was theirs; after all their average consumer is not a winemaker, it was someone roughly like me. And it isn't that hard to pick out a bad wine from a good one, as long as a wine is free from obvious flaws then your opinion will be accepted, and you may find that wine people are much more open to discussing their product than you thought.

So please, don't be intimidated and don't let scores be your only guide. You are equipped with a very efficient machine for tasting wine, your 5 senses (ok, 4). They will not let you down, and don't forget that a wine is meant to be enjoyed, not scored. So if you enjoy it, don't worry about the score!

Legs for Days

Legs. Can't take it anymore. They don't mean anything. I find some inexperienced wine drinkers asking me about legs in wine, and proclaiming how nice the legs of a particular wine are . There is a general lack of understanding about what causes this phenomenon in wine. It has nothing to do with anything but the alcohol and water, and the interactions between the two of them.

Liquids have surface tension. Water has significant surface tension, if you don't believe me belly flop into the next pool you see. Did it hurt? Of course it did, and the fact that it did demonstrates one of the most significant facts about water; hydrogen bonding. There is a high amount of intermolecular forces at play within a solution of one or more chemicals. Have you ever paused to wonder why water, with its low molecular weight, boils at such a high temperature? Take methanol, which is water with a methyl (CH3-) group in place of one of the hydrogen atoms. It boils at ~64C, even though intuition (higher molecular weight) would seem to point towards the opposite. Again, we can attribute that to hydrogen bonding.

Hydrogen bonding comes about due to locally induced polarity on the water molecule. Oxygen is a very electronegative element, it strongly attracts clouds of negative charge towards it. When oxygen is bonded with two hydrogen atoms, as in water, it begins to draw electron density towards itself, creating a local negative charge centered on the oxygen atom. This causes a local positive charge to show on each of the hydrogen atoms. When the hydrogen local positive charge finds the oxygen local negative charge, a slight attraction occurs. The sum of all of these individual attractions between the molecules is what causes water to act the way it does. When ethanol is added to the mixture, we see a boiling point depression. Simply put, the water is not as attracted to itself because the large methyl groups block direct hydrogen bonding for a certain percentage of water molecules thus reducing the net sum of the intermolecular forces. This affects the surface tension of water. It also begins to give us a picture of what actually might be responsible for legs in wine.

There are several physical characteristics at play when a glass of wine is swirled. The capillary effect, just like a paper towel absorbing water, causes the wine at the utmost top of the glass to stick to the glass and sheet out until its surface area is maximized. All of the surface area of the water/ethanol mixture leads to evaporation. Because alcohol has significantly higher vapor pressure, it begins to evaporate much faster than the water. As the concentration of alcohol decreases, the surface tension of water increases. This draws more wine up along the side of the glass, but this wine has reduced surface tension and cannot easily mix with the reduced alcohol (higher surface tension) liquid it is heading towards. This causes the wine to bead up and drop back into the glass. This is a demonstration of the Gibbs-Marangoni effect, essentially describing liquid flow between two or more liquids of different surface tension.

Now for the try-at-home test....

Anyone who doesn't buy this explanation should try three simple experiments at home. First, swirl your usual wine glass and place your hand over the top to stop evaporation. You will see that legs do not form if the alcohol cannot rapidly evaporate. Second, buy yourself a bottle of grain alcohol. Put some water in the sink and then place a drop of everclear in the center of the water. Water will rapidly flow away from the everclear, demonstrating surface tension gradient flow. Third, mix the everclear with some water and swirl it in a wine glass. See the legs? This should debunk anyone still holding on to the notion that legs in wine are an indicator of sweetness or fruit quality.

Harvest is coming...

It's looking like another close year in Oregon. With our second slow start up to the growing season in a row, I am beginning to have my doubts that the state will become 100% ripe. Right now we are anxiously watching the forecast, hoping for the best weather possible between now and Halloween. Some of the higher elevation sites have got to be feeling the crunch, harvest typically starts in a month or less. However, if 2010 taught me one thing, it is that wet years can lead to good wine. We made some excellent wine out of some horrible grapes last year, and if need be we will do it again. While the weather in Oregon may be less than desirable, it is a constant and something we must all learn to deal with. Hopefully we took some notes last year....